Watergate, Vietnam Reflect Complicated Times in American History

By Jim O’Neal

Nixon

Before Richard Nixon went to bed on Nov. 7, 1972, he gathered his supporters at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a few final words of victory. As he turned away to retire, there was a loud chorus of voices chanting “Four more years!” This was an elite group of Republicans, but there was no way for the television audience to know that some of the most eminent chanters were felons.

And although the president had racked up a historic victory with 18 million more votes than his opponent, that was not the whole story. Only 55 percent of eligible voters actually went to the polls, a strong indication that perhaps a lot of people rejected both candidates. Plus, the Democrats continued to dominate both houses of Congress, limiting the power of the presidency to enact key legislation.

Even more significantly, this term would be the first (and only) in U.S. history where both the original president and vice president failed to complete their terms in office. Especially poignant was that both had been forced to resign … Spiro Agnew over corruption and Nixon over Watergate.

In a reference to Watergate, Democratic Party nominee George McGovern had described the Nixon administration as “the most corrupt in history,” but Gallup had reported in October that barely half the voters had even heard of the break-in and only 7 percent thought the president might be involved. The men around Nixon continued to be deeply involved in the cover-up … anything to push the issue past the election.

Kissinger

The president’s reelection campaign had been enormously enhanced in the final days by electrifying news from Henry Kissinger: He and Le Duc Tho, Hanoi’s chief negotiator, had achieved a breakthrough in their Paris talks. On Oct. 8, the North Vietnamese had dropped their insistence that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu be ejected and instead a coalition government be installed in Saigon. Eighteen days later, Kissinger told a televised press conference that a final accord could be reached with just one more meeting. “Peace,” he said, “is at hand.”

But it wasn’t.

Saigon didn’t agree and Thieu vowed that, if necessary, his country would continue the war alone. Then the North became difficult again and Kissinger left Paris in despair on Dec. 14.

Nixon was furious with both sides and cabled North Vietnam’s Premier Pham Van Dong, warning him that unless serious negotiations were resumed within 72 hours, he would reseed Haiphong harbor with mines and unleash America’s aerial might: B-52s, F-4 Phantoms and Navy fighter bombers. General Curtis LeMay had proposed “bombing them back into the Stone Age” and Air Force generals assured the president that in two weeks, they could saturate the enemy homeland with more tonnage than in all the great raids of World War II – a terror-bombing on a scale never known before.

Hanoi did not respond and the result was the most savage chapter in the long history of our involvement as U.S. air bases on Guam and Thailand and carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin pounded them 24/7, flying more than 1,400 bombing sorties a week. Americans were stunned. Only a few days before, they thought the long nightmare was over.

Back in Washington, D.C., the other nightmare was also not going away. Despite the best efforts of All the President’s Men, it was also destined to end badly. A very complicated time in our history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans Have Turned Inward Before, in the Days of Richard Nixon

Chicago Sun-Times political cartoonist Bill Mauldin drew this piece shortly before President Nixon resigned in 1974. The original art sold for $2,748.50 at a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 20, 1973, surrounded by happy perjurers, Richard M. Nixon celebrated his second inauguration in a three-day, $4 million extravaganza, organized by political operative Jeb Stuart Magruder. Named by his Civil War-buff father after Southern General J.E.B. Stuart, Magruder would later serve seven months in prison for perjury involving Watergate.

The rhetoric of the inaugural address was less a promise of what the government would do than what it wouldn’t. Twelve years earlier, another president of the same generation had vowed that “We’ll pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival of liberty.”

Now, Nixon declared that, “The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own … or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.” At the same time, he prepared to liquidate the domestic programs of liberal administrations. Paraphrasing President Kennedy’s most memorable line, Nixon said, “Let each of us ask — not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” (Lyndon B. Johnson would die two days later, but presumably from other causes).

As Nixon paused for effect, a faint sound could be heard from several blocks away. A group of youths was chanting “Murderer,” “Out now,” and “End racism.” A woman from Iowa told a New York Times reporter, “Just disgusting. Why can’t they do something about those kids!”

It was certainly indecorous, yet these demonstrations, like the counterculture of the time, were an expression of the deep divisions in America and they had to be endured. There is no practical way to stifle dissent in an open society; if there was, I suspect Magruder and his allies would have tried to use it.

The chanters – about 500 to 1,000 that included yippies, militants and Maoist activists – were the smallest and rudest protestors in the multitude of demonstrators.

So it was – after intervening in foreign conflicts for a third of a century – that the people of the United States turned inward once more, seeking comfort and renewal in isolation. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Last line from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Maybe someday.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Watergate Scandal Perhaps Permanently Eroded Public Trust in Government

A photo signed by each member of the Congressional Watergate Committee, which investigated whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach Richard M. Nixon, realized $5,497 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Washington Post account of the break-in appeared on the front page of its Sunday edition. The New York Times carried 13 inches (inside) with the headline “Five Charged with Burglary at Democratic Headquarters.” Most other editors played it down even more. Still, it captured the attention of high officers of the U.S. government and the Republican Party. Among them: H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell, Maurice Stans, Jeb Magruder, John Dean and probably the president of the United States.

A year later during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina), Magruder was asked when this glittering array of outlaws had decided to cover its tracks. He answered in a puzzled tone: “I don’t think there was ever any discussion that there would NOT be a cover-up.”

Among the other people who were in on the lies was Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell. She had tried to tell the truth, but a special bodyguard had yanked the phone wires out of the wall when she was telling a UPI reporter, “They don’t want me to talk.” She later said he held her down while another man injected a sedative into her buttocks. But there was no way to keep Martha Mitchell quiet and three days later she called the reporter again, saying, “I’m not going to stand for all these dirty things going on.” It made a good story, but Martha’s credibility was low and most Americans accepted the official line.

Ron Ziegler, the former ad man who served as President Nixon’s press secretary, spelled it out. In a scornful tone, he declined to even rebut Martha’s rants. “I am not going to comment from the White House on a third-rate burglary attempt,” Ziegler announced. However, when a few Post reporters continued to ask questions, Ziegler did comment from the WH: “I don’t respect the type of journalism, the shabby journalism, that is being practiced by The Washington Post.” (John Mitchell added, “[Washington Post publisher] Katie Graham is going to get her teat caught in a big fat wringer!”)

On Monday, July 16, via live TV, chief minority counsel Fred (Law & Order) Dalton Thompson got White House assistant Alexander Butterfield to disclose there was an automatic recording system in the White House. Apparently, all conversations in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and even President Nixon’s private office were taped.

Once this bombshell exploded, it was only a short trip to forcing the administration to turn over all recordings. This would inexorably lead to the indictment of 69 people (with 48 found guilty) and the first presidential resignation. When asked much later why he didn’t simply burn the tapes, Nixon calmly replied he wanted to preserve his legacy for posterity. (Mission accomplished!)

All of this was captured brilliantly 40 years ago in the film All the President’s Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the roles of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The movie won four Oscars, with Jason Robards snagging best supporting actor for his portrayal of editor Ben Bradlee. It is a must-see movie and the Bernstein-Woodward book is equally entertaining.

Coming on top of the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War, the entire Watergate scandal eroded public trust in government, perhaps permanently. Even today, the cover-up is generally worse than the crime.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Looking Back, President Ford’s Pardon was the Right Thing to Do

lf
A first edition copy of Gerald Ford’s 1979 autobiography A Time to Heal, inscribed to Caspar Weinberger, sold for nearly $900 at a February 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, accepting conviction for income tax violations in lieu of facing trial on bribery charges, the door to the White House swung open to Gerald R. Ford.

The Constitution’s 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, came into use for the first time. It provided that a vacancy in the office of vice president could be filled by nomination by the president and confirmation by both houses of Congress. President Richard Nixon, reeling from the twin blows of the Watergate scandals and the Agnew bribery charges, began a frantic scramble to fill the vacancy with someone acceptable to the public and whom Congress would quickly approve. He also needed someone he could trust as unquestionably loyal.

Ford’s nomination was announced by Nixon on Oct. 12, 1973, barely two weeks before the House Judiciary Committee began formal proceedings to determine whether Nixon should be impeached. Nobody in Congress could dig up a smidgen of impropriety regarding Ford and the House approved his nomination 387-35 on Dec. 6 after a Senate vote of 92-3 on Nov. 27. During the hearings, Ford was asked if he would pardon Nixon should he resign and GRF replied, “I do not think the public would stand for it.”

A short but tumultuous eight months later, Ford became the 38th president of the United States in a moment of high drama at noon on Aug. 9, 1974. Shortly before, the nation had been glued to the TV as Nixon became the first president in history to resign. He departed the White House after a tearful farewell to his staff. A few minutes later, the cameras turned to Ford, the first vice president to ascend to the presidency by appointment.

Ford was sworn in on the same East Room platform where Nixon had stood moments earlier, although the White House was not the usual place for a swearing-in ceremony. Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in before the fireplace in the Red Room, FDR’s fourth term began on the South Portico, and Harry S. Truman had taken the oath in the Cabinet Room. By then, the Nixons were on Air Force One headed for San Clemente. When the clock struck noon, the designation of the plane was dropped.

Within a week of Ford’s swearing in, documents were being hauled out by Nixon staffers in “suitcases and boxes” every day. Working late on Aug. 16, Benton Becker, Ford’s legal counsel, observed a number of military trucks lined up on West Executive Avenue, between the West Wing and the Executive Office Building. Upon inquiry, he was told they were there “to load material that was to be airlifted from Andrews Air Force Base to San Clemente.” Sensing something was wrong, Becker got the Secret Service to intervene and the trucks were unloaded and the material returned to the EOB. Soon, an armed guard was stationed there to protect them.

Perhaps one last ploy by Tricky Dick, à la the 17 minutes of recording “accidentally” erased. We will never know. But we do know that the Ford-Nixon pardon that caused such a national outrage has finally been judged the prudent thing to do … finally.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Nixon’s Resignation Restored Faith in the System

Richard Nixon photograph signing Burger's Supreme Court appointment
A photograph inscribed by Richard Nixon to Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger sold for nearly $6,000 at an April 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In mid-1971, The New York Times began publishing excerpts from a secret Defense Department study, “History of U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam Policy.” The study had been leaked to the press by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who, joined by his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, photocopied its 7,000 pages, snipping off the words “Top Secret” from each page.

Better known to the public as the Pentagon Papers, it became a best-seller in book form. While few could understand the arcane language, they knew what it revealed: The government had been lying to them about both the motives and its conduct in Vietnam. By playing David to the government’s Goliath, Ellsberg became a kind of folk hero to the growing anti-war movement. It seemed the only thing the left and right could agree on was their distrust of their own government.

Still, by 1973, the preoccupation was not the war or the sad economy, but a constitutional crisis that carried the name of a Washington luxury apartment and office … Watergate.

When the break-in at the Watergate offices of the DNC was first revealed in June 1972, Presidential Press Secretary Ron Ziegler described it as a “third-rate burglary,” hardly worth reporters’ attention, except for two at The Washington Post. Over the next two years, as the tentacles of a very complicated story reached higher and higher, the president would try to avoid involvement by throwing subordinates overboard, but the dirty water reached the highest office in the land.

Richard Nixon had an amazing public career, starting with Congress in the late 1940s; his pursuit of Alger Hiss; eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s VP; his own run for the presidency in 1960; and then the dramatic comeback to the Oval Office in 1968 … only to face an ignominious departure six years later.

Nixon compiled a 28-year run at or near the center of the world’s stage, but on the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, the 37th president of the United States – his eyes red, his voice shaky – addressed his staff in the East Room, imploring them to never “hate those who hate.” Then he and his wife Pat exited the mansion doors, walked on a fresh red carpet and disappeared into the helicopter Army One.

Nixon was a private citizen seated in a California-bound 707 somewhere over Missouri when Vice President Gerald Ford recited the oath of office as the new president. Chief Justice Warren Burger turned to Senate Leader Hugh Scott. “It worked, Hugh,” he said of the system. “Thank God it worked.”

With a swiftness that restored faith in the system, the forced exit of one leader and the entrance of his successor had been carried off smoothly.

P.S. For movie fans, the 1976 film All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards, is well worth another viewing.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].